Albert Woodfox, who was in solitary confinement more than any prisoner ever held in the United States, died at the age 75 due to complications. COVID-19. After spending nearly 44 years in prison for wrongfully killing a guard, the ex-Black Panther and political prisoner was freed six years ago. Robert King and Herman Wallace, fellow prisoners, were falsely accused of murdering prison guards. They became known collectively as the Angola 3. Democracy Now!Albert Woodfox was interviewed live on TV for his first interview, just three days after he was released in 2016. He also interviewed Woodfox multiple times thereafter. “I’m just trying to learn how to be free,” Woodfox said. “I’ve been locked up so long in a prison within a prison.” Woodfox went on to write his memoir, Solitary, and continued to fight prison reform after his release.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Albert Woodfox, who was in solitary confinement more than any prisoner ever held in the United States, died at 75. COVID-19. After almost 44 years in solitary detention, the ex-Black Panther and political prisoner was freed six years ago. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Black Panther Party’s first chapter at the Louisiana State Penitentiary In Angola. It was established to address the terrible conditions at the former cotton plantation.
In 1972, he was falsely accused with Herman Wallace, another Panther imprisoned, of stabbing Brent Miller to death. Wallace and Woodfox always maintained their innocence and claimed they were targeted because of their organization with the Black Panthers. Miller’s own widow would later urge the state of Louisiana to free Albert Woodfox, after she became convinced he was innocent. Woodfox, Wallace, Robert King and another Black Panther were collectively known by the Angola 3. Amnesty International, along with other groups, campaigned for their release for many decades. Robert King was liberated in 2001. Herman Wallace was released in 2013 after a federal judge threatened that he would jail the warden at Angola prison if it didn’t release him that day. Herman Wallace, who was released from prison one day later, died of liver cancer. The state of Louisiana refused Albert Woodfox release. On his 69th birthday, on February 19th 2016, he was finally released.
Three days after his release, Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz and I interviewedAlbert Woodfox’s first TV interview.
AMY GOODMAN:That was Albert Woodfox. speakingOn Democracy Now!February 22, 2016, three days after his release from solitary confinement after more than 40 years.
Albert would spend many years campaigning for political prisoners’ release and speaking out against solitary confinement after his release. Albert also co-authored a remarkable memoir, entitled “The Memoir of Albert George”. Solitary: Unbroken after Four Decades in Solitary Consignment. My Story of Transformation & Hope. The memoir won an American Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as well the National Book Award. 2019 Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I interviewedAfter the publication of the book, Albert Woodfox was photographed in our New York studio.
AMY GOODMAN:How do you feel today? How do you feel today, after 43 years in prison
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, hopeful. Rob and I still travel across America and abroad to discuss solitary confinement. We believe it is the worst form of non-physical assault on a human being. Throughout my four decades-plus of solitary confinement, I’ve watched men go insane, I’ve watched men physically hurt themselves, you know, trying to deal with the pressure of being confined to a 9-by-6 cell 23 hours out of every 24-hour period.
Despite being free, I still suffer from claustrophobic attacks. I’m able to address them better now because my physical movement is beyond nine feet now. You know what? I can walk in my yard. I can also go into my backyard. I can go on the sidewalk, or there’s a park, which I often visit, a block and a half away from my house. Space was my only option when I felt claustrophobic. This has made it easier for me to deal with these attacks.
AMY GOODMAN: And you write, “Gassing prisoners was the number one response by security to deal with any prisoner at Angola who demanded to be treated with dignity. … In the seventies we were gassed so often every prisoner in CCR almost became immune to the tear gas.” You were being gassed in solitary confinement?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Yeah. Well, you know, the sergeants were provided with these little — it’s like a little deodorant can. And if you would try to get a certain, like, more toilet paper, or you complained about the toilet in your cell not working, you know, and if the officers didn’t like the way you were talking, or if you were trying to defend yourself from being handled in a disrespectful manner and stuff, they would squirt the gas in your face, you know? And usually that would be followed by — they would come into your cell and beat you and handcuff you, then bring you and put you in what’s called the dungeon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ:The book describes, graphically, the situation in Angola when your first arrived. Before that, you were in solitary and there were rampant rapes occurring in the prison. And once you became politically conscious and you were returned there, you talk about how you insisted that on your — in your section, that there was going to be no more rapes. Talk about this and the impact of your political organizing on how you dealt with your fellow prisoners.
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, the incident that started the prison chapter of the party to form anti-rape squads was, I was in my dormitory — I was housed in Hickory 4 at that time — and this young kid was assigned a bed across from me. And the saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life is to look at another human being and see that his spirit has been shattered. This kid, I saw tears streaming from his eyes as he sat there. I believe that each incident in life can raise your consciousness. Your consciousness will increase and you will be more aware of the people, conditions, and circumstances around you. That level of consciousness will determine how you respond to it. And I think at that moment that I said, “I can no longer accept this. I can no longer tolerate this.”
So, the next morning, I had a chat with Herman Wallace. We used to go out on the field for football. That’s how we used to have our meetings, like we were practicing football, throwing the football around and having political discussions and stuff. So we had a discussion with the other members about the rapes and slave trade going on in Angola. So we decided to offer protection to these children who were coming in, so they knew that there were other options than being made to suffer.
AMY GOODMAN:How did you manage to keep your sanity during 44 years of solitary confinement in isolation?
ALBERT WOODFOX:I think it’s the fact that I was a Black Panther Party member. I was politically conscious. My mom instilled values and principles into me that I grew up with. You know, I didn’t realize how much my mom had built and set a foundation in me, even though I was resisting it. We had programs over the years that were geared toward improving the lives of men. We had schools. We used to have schools and political classes. You know what, however, no matter how many battles we won, no matter how many men we saved, or how many men we helped to keep their sanity intact, we lost twice the number of men. Sometimes I had to fight for my sanity. And I am grateful for what I was doing.
You see, all of this gave me an incredible love for humanity. I have dedicated my life to helping humanity. And so, I remember reading something from Mr. Mandela, and he said, “If a cause is noble, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.” And I thought what we were doing was a noble cause. So we were ready. And so the beatings and the gassings and the decades of solitary confinement, you know, was really — although painful and difficult, it never got to the point where they were able to break us.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s amazing to me that rather than just leaving it all behind — I mean, it already consumed so many decades of your life — you are spending your life, free, talking about what’s happening inside. I think, to say the least, it’s impossible for anyone who hasn’t gone through this to understand what it means to live in a 6-by-9-foot cell for more than four decades. How did your sanity keep you sane? Please describe for us what it was like to be in that cell.
ALBERT WOODFOX:The actual dimensions of the cell measure 6 by 9 feet, six feet wide, and nine feet long. The space is actually smaller because you have two bunks attached on the wall that take up half the cell. There is also a toilet bowl and face bowl combination on one side of the back wall. On the other, there is an iron table with a bench. You have a narrow path that allows you to move forward and backward in the cell. You know, when you’re first put in solitary confinement, you go through this period where you want to scream, you know, because nothing you can do to fight this. It was probably the early stages claustrophobia. However, it all depends on the individual.
As you grow older, you will be able to control your emotions and your feelings of being confined and smothered. And so, but then, you know, when we’re first put in solitary confinement, you could only have like two or three pair of underwear and a T-shirt. And, you know, you couldn’t have books or radios and those things. Those items were obtained later through our resistance and organizing, hunger strikes, and stuff like this. We won the right, you know?, to change.
AMY GOODMAN: Albert, you wrote, “My proudest achievement in all my years in solitary was teaching a man to read.”
ALBERT WOODFOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN:How did you do it? And who was he?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, his name’s Charles, and we became good friends. And since, you know, my mom couldn’t read or write anything but her name, you know, there’s certain things people that can’t read or write, certain techniques they use and stuff. So I took this information and passed it on to him. And you know what? CCRThe cellblock is 15 men to one cell. The uniqueness of Louisiana’s cellblock is that its front is made of bars. It’s not a completely concrete enclosed cell. So I asked him one day. I said, “Man, you know, don’t get mad, but can you read and write?” And he said, you know, “No, I can’t.” And I just told him. I said, “Well, I can help you learn how to read and write, but you’ve got to really want it. You’ve got to want this badder than anything.”
So I started with the dictionary. You know, in dictionaries, at the bottom of each page, there’s a sound key on how you pronounce words, as to how they’re spelled. I taught him vowels, adjectives, and how to make words. And he really wanted it, you know, because I told him — I said, you know, “Any time, I don’t care what, night or day, you hit a wall, you call me.” And he called me 2 or 3 in the morning, you know, and “I can’t pronounce this word.” And so I would ask him to spell it, and then I’d remind him of, you know, the voice key at the bottom of the page and how you pronounce alphabets, and help him, you know, think.
AMY GOODMAN:He was also alone.
ALBERT WOODFOX:Yes, he was three or four cells below me.
AMY GOODMAN:How do you communicate? How do you communicate with others in solitude?
ALBERT WOODFOX:You talk, holler to the top and bottom of the tier. This is one of the reasons I woke up very early in the morning. The tier stops showering. There’s no noise. The doors do not open and close. And, you know, so you are able to really concentrate on what you’re doing. Even now, I still wake up at 3:00 in the morning to do my reading. I still read, and try to read at most two hours per day. I try to hold on to certain habits and ideas that I acquired in prison.
AMY GOODMAN:What are your final thoughts as you set out on the journey around the globe, taking in every moment of the free world?
ALBERT WOODFOX: Well, you know, my hope has always been for a better humanity and to try to be a part of that, to try to say something or do something that will make, if it’s no more than one human being, stop and think and, you know, start a dialogue that can leave into — that can change into a movement. You know, I’ve always said that one individual can cause chaos; mass movements can cause change. That is why I stand firm in my belief.
And so, that’s — you know, Robert and I and Herman, you know, when we were in prison, the one thing we always noticed is that we didn’t have a voice. Because of the men, women, and children who were kept behind bars and in isolation, no one knew what we looked like. We had made a promise that we would be their voice and that we would be their face.
You know, I think what people in America and around the world have to realize, that prisoners don’t come from another planet. They are your family. They are your family. They might make mistakes. The economic system usually brings about depression. And, you know, I mean, I know that there is a very small percentage of human beings who do some horrible things, you know, but the overwhelming majority — you know, you come from a family. You don’t come from an alien planet. They need to remember that. They need to love and support them, because prisons, or any other state institution, are corrupted by unchecked power. And that’s the situation you have in prisons in this country.
AMY GOODMAN:Albert Woodfox, ex-Black Panther speakingOn Democracy Now!In 2019, just after the publication his award-winning book, Solitary: Unbroken after Four Decades in Solitary Consignment. My Story of Transformation & Hope. He died Thursday, COVIDAt 75. We’ll speak to his loved ones after break.
AMY GOODMAN: “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, a favorite of Albert Woodfox.